Airtel has accused Reliance Jio of gaming the incoming and outgoing calling pattern to shift the interconnect usage charge system to its advantage. 

Airtel officials said that RJio had reduced the ringing time for outgoing calls to other networks (from 45 to 20 seconds only) leading to a lot of customer inconvenience since the calls are cut-off even before the receiving customer had the time to pick it up.

"Seeing a missed call the receiving customer calls back to the originating operator’s network. By converting such outgoing calls to incoming calls, one large operator is not only getting IUC from other operators but also trying to reduce the asymmetry of traffic artificially. This is to show symmetry in traffic in the run-up to the proposed implementation of zero IUC from January 2020," said an Airtel official.

"Seeing this practice from a large 4G only operator, the TRAI has come out with a consultation paper," the official said. 

Sources close to Airtel said that spectrum efficiency has nothing to do with the reduction in timer. "If indeed spectrum efficiency was the reason, why has that large 4G only operator reduced the ringing timer for outgoing calls only to other networks but kept it at 45 seconds for calls made within its own network? It is quite evident that this has been done only with the sole purpose of gaming the asymmetry of traffic and reducing IUC payouts to other operators," the source said. 

According to Airtel's estimates, if the IUC goes to zero, the RJio stands to benefit by approximately Rs 3,200-3,300 crores per annum.

Interconnect Usage Charge (IUC) is the cost that a mobile operator pays to another operator for carrying through/terminating a call. If a customer of mobile operator 'A ' calls a customer of operator 'B' and the call is completed then A will pay an IUC charge to B for carrying/facilitating the call.

Essentially, it is the originating network compensating the receiving network for the cost of carrying the call. In India IUC is set by the TRAI. It is currently at six paise per minute with a roadmap for making it zero by January 2020.

If operator A received 100 calls from operator B, while operator B received only 60 calls from operator A then this is what we refer to a case of asymmetric or unequal traffic between two networks. At the end of the month operator B will compensate operator A for a net of 40 calls completed on its network.

If both operators A and B received 100 calls from each other then this is what we refer to as symmetric or equal traffic between two networks. In this case, the payouts between the two operators are squared off.  

TRAI had clearly stated that they would assess the extent of migration of traffic to all IP networks and symmetry (balance) of traffic before finalising the reduction in IUC from six paise per minute to zero. This was two years ago.

The ground reality is that there is still very high asymmetry of traffic between a large 4G only operator and the other operators. Despite Jio gaining more than 32 per cent market share, Airtel and Vodafone continue to be large net recipients of calls from Jio and therefore Jio pays them IUC for carrying these calls.

Airtel’s traffic asymmetry with RJio still stands at approximately 65 per cent (incoming) v/s 35 per cent (outgoing).

TRAI has taken this into account and now started a fresh consultation the process to ensure the orderly growth of the telecom sector.

While new entrant Reliance Jio wants the charges to be reduced to zero by next year, Airtel and Vodafone Idea want an increase in these fees to 14 paise a minute.

RJio's repsonse

RJIO officials dismissed the allegations. "Firstly, the incumbent operators have a ringing time of 30 seconds, as opposed to the false statement made above (about 45 seconds). Secondly, globally, most operators have an average ringing time of only 15 – 20 seconds. Third, 25-30 per cent of calls landing onto the large 4G operator’s network are missed calls. Users from incumbents network who are paying Rs 1.5/min for calls request Jio users to make a free voice call to them by giving a missed call, thereby creating this traffic mismatch," said an RJIO official.

"If all operators were made to upgrade their networks to 4G and charge their customers at par, there will not be any traffic asymmetry,"the RJio official added.  

"It is actually the incumbent operators who are gaming the IUC regime by charging their 2G/3G customers high voice tariffs, as these customers are not able to move to the efficient 4G operator owing to not having a compatible device," the official said.